Q: Recently a police helicopter was circling around my neighborhood for at least 45 minutes. How can I find out what the helicopter was looking for and what agency it was from?

A: The continuous and long-term presence of a police helicopter circling over a neighborhood may indicate something of significance occurring. This could be anything from the search for a missing child, to checking the rooftops of a burglary alarm activation, to actively assisting ground officers in their hunt for a criminal suspect on the loose. One of the best resources for obtaining timely and relevant information regarding such evolving incidents is through the Santa Monica Alert system. “SM Alerts” is a notification system that allows city government to contact subscribers with information in the event of an emergency, a health and safety concern, traffic alerts, or significant or critical police activity. Anyone can sign up to receive the alerts on their mobile, work, or home phone, via text, e-mail, and more. The enrollment is free at SMAlerts.net. This is a very helpful tool to keep the public in the loop concerning significant public safety concerns.

Another way to find out what happened in your neighborhood is to call or e-mail your area’s neighborhood resource officer (santamonicapd.org/nro) or by contacting the Community Relations Office at (310) 458-8474. He or she will be glad to research the incident and provide you with details after the fact. During an evolving incident, we discourage citizens from calling the police department merely out of curiosity, as this can tie up phone lines needed for incoming critical calls for service.

A good general rule to follow for when you observe evolving police activity, whether that be the presence of numerous police cars, or the ongoing presence of an orbiting police helicopter, is to remain inside your home or business, and secure your doors and windows. If you should observe anyone or anything suspicious or out of the ordinary (such as a person trying to hide, or a vehicle rapidly fleeing the area), call 911 and report your observations, as this may be related to the police activity.

Law enforcement and public safety aircraft have been indispensable tools for modern and effective policing, particularly in this populous area we know as the Westside. With the increase of assaults upon police officers by criminal suspects attempting their escape, we feel fortunate to have access to airborne resources which provide police officers with an enhanced tactical advantage, as well as affording them with an increased margin of safety.

The SMPD does have limited access to its own rented helicopter for various pre-planned events and other public safety operations. However, when our agency requires air support for a rapidly evolving emergency, we presently must rely on the air resources of either the LAPD or the Los Angeles County Sheriff, and request them to assist us to the extent they are willing and available. These helicopters are conspicuously painted and marked as law enforcement. Some of LAPD’s helicopters are painted with a black and white scheme, others with a light gray scheme. L.A. County Sheriff’s helicopters are painted green and yellow. The helicopter used by the SMPD is currently a black and gold Robinson R44 model.

Most law enforcement helicopters are equipped with thermal imaging technology, which can detect criminal suspects hiding on rooftops or concealed in vegetation. Many police copters are also equipped with a stolen vehicle locating system known as “Lo-Jack.” The recent police helicopter activity you inquired about for your neighborhood involved an LAPD helicopter crew who had used “Lo-Jack” to detect a stolen vehicle, and was actively looking for a possible suspect. While the stolen vehicle was ultimately located and returned to its registered owner, the suspect was not found.

The pilot and crew of any law enforcement helicopter are experienced sworn police officers who have worked several years on street patrol before taking to the sky. The particular air crew which operates the SMPD helicopter also knows the specific neighborhood crime trends and trouble spots to keep an eye on. The mission of these airborne officers is no different than the overall public safety mission, it’s just their vehicle has changed.

This column was written by Neighborhood Resource Officer SCOTT MCGEE (Beat 5: Montana Avenue to north city limits, Ocean Avenue to 26th Street). He can be reached at (424) 200-0685 or scott.mcgee@smgov.net.